There’s no such thing as ‘the people’ - so stop trying to speak for them
- Credit: Archant
The crisis in British politics is the result of an obsession with leaders trying to invoke an imaginary 'people', says ZOE WILLIAMS. It is high time they gave up
I interviewed the cultural theorist Stuart Hall when the kidney disease that would kill him was already well advanced, so naturally everything he said has a poignance. But one thing stands out as peculiarly prescient: 'Politicians always think they know what people feel. It's a fallacy, because there is no such thing as 'the people'. It is a discursive device for summoning the people that you want. You're constructing the people, you're not reflecting the people.'
There are universals: as the New Zealand prime minister Norman Kirk memorably pointed out, 'People don't want much: someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for.' And there are principles to which we like to believe we're all signed up – it is horrific and shaming to see a three-year-old crying at a border, having been separated from her parents – but, when it comes to it, not enough of us know how to object to. But beyond this broadest imaginable emotional level, there is no such thing as the will of the people, and we should be very worried by a politics that insists that there is.
Ours is such a politics: in both parties, the will of the people is marshalled against a set of realities in an unwinable deadlock worthy of a Terry Eagleton essay on the limits of language.
We concentrate on the raw numbers of the referendum vote at our peril: I believe, as I guess most of us do on the Remain side, that it is illogical to present Brexit in these terms, when the will of some people has such a profound impact on the lives of everyone.
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At what point does one person's will to take back control trump someone else's will to have a manufacturing job in Hull?
What kind of majority would it need for such an absolute stand-off to be resolved? You could argue, considerably larger than the one it got; or you could argue that poising the abstract against the concrete in this way is meaningless, and no functional democracy would embark upon it.
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Either route is pointless, though, because once you conceive people as a solid unit, whose will is fixed and has been spoken, you can brook no debate: any argument that claims to reflect people whom in fact it is constructing is inherently fragile. And it is weakness, not strength, that creates these unresponsive, locked positions.
This people-summoning is contagious: once Nigel Farage has summoned the true people of England, who want to go back to smoking in pubs, drinking honest British ale, listening to none of those fancy foreigners and retaking their destiny, Boris Johnson immediately wants some authentic British people of his own, who want to trade their infinite derring-do with Singapore. Theresa May's people are citizens of somewhere, hopefully Surrey, and just want all this silly talking to stop. Many MPs have an imaginary Northerner as their people, who just wants fewer foreigners around, and is that so much to ask?
Authenticity is always rooted in anger, but of a very precise nature: if you're angry about bureaucracy, then you are a real person, if you're angry about the complete breakdown of parliamentary sovereignty, you're not a real person.
If you're angry about immigration, you're real; if you're angry about the refugee crisis, you're not real. Unless of course you're angry about Germany's behaviour over the refugee crisis, whereupon, magically, you become once again real.
You'd think this might be determined by constituency – it would be fair enough, for instance, if the MP for Leeds West cared more about the sort of anger she sees there than the sort she sees in Islington. But it doesn't cut both ways: the MP for Vauxhall doesn't see her constituents' anger as authentic at all, and therefore they are not her people, even though, in the most literal sense of sending her to parliament as our representative, we are.
The natural temptation is to say, to whoever one's opponent is, your construction of the people is wrong, take mine as an alternative: and I do often feel like saying that.
I see no reason why the white working class should be taken as an amorphous blob sharing one opinion. I think polling, generally but especially around Brexit, is wildly self-fulfilling. If you endlessly ask people what they think of immigration, you land in an unreal space where everyone thinks it's everyone else's number one topic.
I see no reason, furthermore, why the working man of Doncaster is inherently more representative of 'British people' than the working woman of Tower Hamlets, unless we're making a distinction based on who belongs here the most, which would be… well, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit Enoch Powell.
Yet that's the wrong way to go: my people are no more real than their people: in a post-listening world, there is only one's own view, and the strength with which it is put forward.
The only answer I can see to this conundrum is to create the space for some unmediated public debate, or to put that another way, start listening.
If parliament is to retain its sovereignty, there will be a meaningful vote, and parties other than the Conservatives will be called upon for a plan of their own.
If we're to escape the spectacle of yet more on-the-hoof squaring of un-squarable circles, on the back of what the people will and will not abide, we need to hear from some actual people.
There are democratic levers between communities and government, as hard as that is to recall in a time when even parliament struggles for a grip on its power. If you want to know what people think about Brexit, what it will do to their jobs and their livelihoods, go to the places where people talk about their jobs and their livelihoods; go to the unions. Go to regional meetings, go to the conferences, go to the sectoral silos, go to freight and chemical and automobiles, let the air in.
If you want to know what anxieties people have about the future of the public sector, about academia, about the environment, ask the people who have thought deeply about the challenges they face, not because they are superior people whose voices should carry more weight democratically, but because they might have thought about this in more detail.
There is scope for political re-engagement of a much more profound kind than a simple quest for things to return to normal so we can all go back to not paying attention. Last weekend, Momentum launched a petition, Stop Tory Brexit, calling for Labour to debate its policy at conference. So much wind-baggery has gone into decrying this group as cranks – the ultimate in inauthenticity, too radical to be British, too rich to be angry – that its critical role in the new-fashioned Labour party has been overlooked.
Jeremy Corbyn's Labour is dedicated to, and in many ways defined by, a deeper democracy. If the petition gets 4,000 signatures, this will have to be debated at conference. If Constituency Labour Parties want the same, that too will come to pass. Nobody has to guess what people want, when the mechanisms exist for people to say.
Brexit started its life as a skeleton proposition, and nobody has been able to put flesh on its bones, so it dances around, silencing the breathing issues around it like a memento mori. Its legitimacy rests entirely on a popular will that becomes ever more chimeric, as the implications of the enterprise shake down. The only thing keeping it aloft is the imaginary voter in the mind of a Brexiteer, and the only thing to slay an imposter is the real thing.
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